James Kimbrell narrates life at the poverty line as “the dilapidated armpit of Jackson,” a mother working at a nursing home and her son not having enough to eat, the son “never cracked an empty bottle across that space where his front teeth rotted out” while his mother’s boyfriend slept, even though he still wanted this man to be proud of him as a “son.” His own missing father, an alcoholic, making many glancing appearances in several poems, is always shown by way of his son’s longing, holding onto him with a steadfast, hard unrequited need, as he attunes to the father’s life in order to be with him. In the poem “Take Me As I am,” he visits his father after basic training:
Let me take the Trailways [ . . . ] to my father’s fourplexThe poet accepts his roots, the past not escapable, and settles into doing what he wants; “his resistance” is assent to life. He holds onto the implacable root of his origin, and what he has, he accepts with dignity, a dignity leavened with acknowledgment that this is the way it is, the plate on which life, and his life, is served.
with its stairwell that smells like motor oil and beer,
Aqua Velva, cigars and critter piss [. . . ] In our cut-offs and
flip-flops, let us stroll [. . . . ] up the hill to the Bel Aire
The struggle is not just the usual difficulties of growing up, which it is, but the acute awareness of what lies behind everything and ties childhood to adulthood with seamless, familiar connection. Being untalented in the school band to the point he could not even slide by, his teacher treats him with dismissal as he sits playing. Years later in reflection on his own insufficiency to belong from the beginning, “We call it under because it’s in the past, / not some cave-mouth above hell.” Wounds thrust their dagger, no matter how long ago . . . floundering, the foundation for a lifetime.
Thinking back on his first time of sex mid-teens and its harrowing awkwardness and of her now in early middle age, comes the line, “But tell me you’re alone” and then “Tell me why you returned to me / when I sat this morning on the back porch . . . .” All in one positioning of the most mundane of words, the past, the present, life that moves on as fast as our breath, the hunger to live no matter what, the fire that burns us that is life, loss the payment for more, more. Floundering, yes, but burning and very much alive.
In the poem, “There’s Nothing Wrong With You,” comes “Nor is it right to hate God, or anyone else busy sleeping in the blue casket of summer, bold with constellations”: Kimbrell lands this line with the neutrality of dead-center mystery, a mystery that says nothing, and plunges us to the center of ourselves to be fully as we are and that “is” the felt mystery, it is all, nothing more, nothing less. We are in the longing, the seeing, the knowing. He lets us feel what cannot be expressed, by any words.